#GE2017: Immigration, Labour and the left

Sue Sparks argues that any concession to restricting immigration necessarily involves the notion that immigrants are a problem, and contributes to hostility and racism against all immigrants.

Photo: Steve Eason

The General Election was called by Theresa May to try to increase her majority, substantially on the issue of which leader will deliver a ‘better’ Brexit deal. Whether we like it or not – and we don’t – one of the key issues in the referendum was immigration. It remains an obsession not just of UKIP, but of the Tory press, who have focused on Corbyn’s refusal to say whether or not he has a target figure for immigration. The Daily Mail and Telegraph carried stories in the last week of May about a leaked Labour document which is said to prove that Corbyn favours unlimited immigration.[1] In many ways, quite rightly, the Labour campaign has tried to move the debate towards discussing the Tories’ policies and actions on health spending, schools funding plans, benefit cuts, housing and the overall disastrous impact of Tory governments on poverty since 2010. The Tory lead has been narrowing over the campaign and there are signs of Tory panic – all this is very welcome. In this situation, the Tories and their supporters in the press see immigration as one of their remaining sticks available with which to beat Labour.

But there are several areas in both the manifesto and public statements by Corbyn and other Labour figures in which the party is making major concessions to the right. The one I want to highlight is immigration and freedom of movement, where the party has pledged to end freedom of movement after Brexit (though not explaining how this is compatible with continued access to the single market) and has ceded the argument about migrants undercutting wages. Nor is it any better on the question of refugees and asylum seekers – several other parties (the Greens and the SNP for instance) have much better positions on allowing in refugees, supporting the Dubs child refugee scheme, abolishing detention and so on. Labour is only promising to manage the process better and ‘take our fair share of refugees’.

While there have been some very good responses to Labour’s backtracking by the left including from rs21, Left Unity and an open letter to Labour candidates from the group Movement for Justice, there are some less attractive reactions. There is a tendency among some on the left to respond in two ways to Labour’s stance on this subject: one, to urge critics to keep quiet, at least until after the election, because of the overwhelming need to defeat the Tories. The other response is to try to put a left gloss on anti-immigration arguments.

Though both arguments are, in my view, very wrong, the second is worse. To deal with the first quickly: it is wrong for the left to keep quiet about these criticisms, especially during an election campaign when interest in politics (as defined by most people) is at its height. It’s an opportunity to get uniquely socialist and internationalist ideas across, admittedly to a minority, not to duck debate in the interests of electoral expediency – that’s what electoralist parties do, not what people who claim to be ‘revolutionaries’ do. It also says to people – especially migrant workers and people of colour who are bearing the brunt of the increased insecurity and racism in the wake of the referendum – we don’t think your concerns are important enough to override our agenda, so please be quiet.

The second approach – trying to put a progressive spin on anti-immigration arguments – is far worse, as it undercuts the whole basis of being able to campaign against the policies which will come out of the election, whichever party wins. Although Labour will almost certainly be more humane in its approach to immigration (after living through a number of Labour governments since the 1960s, I hesitate to say ‘definitely’), if the left has already conceded the ideological argument that ‘immigration is a problem’ we have sown confusion and disarmed ourselves and those who listen to us in advance of the battle.

So – what are these arguments? These are some I’ve come across:

  1. The bosses use immigrants to undercut the wages and conditions of ‘British’ workers. It’s not the fault of the immigrants, they are victims as well. Free movement of labour is just a cover for capital to ride roughshod over workers, whether migrants or ‘natives’. (A variant of this is that it’s middle-class people who benefit from immigration because they can hire cheap labour to clean their houses and look after their children. It’s the low-paid who suffer);
  2. It would be better to improve the economies of the countries the migrants are coming from, then they wouldn’t be forced to leave their homes and come to work in mainly badly-paid, low-skilled jobs for which they are, in many cases, over-qualified;
  3. Fortress Europe: free movement only applies in the EU and it shouldn’t be defended as it is part of a system that keeps out non-EU migrants and has led to the deaths of thousands in the Mediterranean and many more being kept in camps on the borders.

There have been numerous research studies by labour market economists and thinktanks trying to quantify the effects of immigration on the wages of ‘indigenous’ workers and on other, more established groups of migrants. (These terms are of course extremely tendentious in themselves – when does a former immigrant become ‘indigenous’?) It’s a complicated business but for the purposes of this piece, it will suffice to say that the consensus is that any downward pressure on wages is extremely marginal. The impact on average wages has been found in some cases to be positive as immigration tends to raise overall productivity. This is leaving aside the specific contribution of skilled migrants to say, the health service and teaching, and to less skilled but vital areas like social care. On the other hand, the impact on wages for the lowest-paid has been marginally negative. A briefing from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory in reviewing the evidence found that:

Focusing on the period 1997-2005 when the UK experienced significant labour immigration (see our briefing ‘Migrants in the Labour Market’), Dustmann, Frattini and Preston (2013) find that an increase in the number of migrants corresponding to 1% of the UK-born working-age population resulted in an increase in average wages of 0.1 to 0.3%. Another study, for the period 2000-2007, found that a 1% increase in the share of migrants in the UK’s working-age population lowers the average wage by 0.3% (Reed and Latorre 2009). These studies, which relate to different time periods, thus reach opposing conclusions but they agree that the effects of immigration on average wages are relatively small.

The effects of immigration on workers within specific wage ranges or in specific occupations are more significant. The greatest wage effects are found for low-waged workers. Dustmann et al (2013) find that each 1% increase in the share of migrants in the UK-born working age population leads to a 0.6% decline in the wages of the 5% lowest paid workers and to an increase in the wages of higher paid workers. Similarly, another study focusing on wage effects at the occupational level during 1992 and 2006, found that, in the unskilled and semi-skilled service sector, a 1% rise in the share of migrants reduced average wages in that occupation by 0.5% (Nickell and Salaheen 2008). The available research further shows that any adverse wage effects of immigration are likely to be greatest for resident workers who are themselves migrants. This is because the skills of new migrants are likely to be closer substitutes for the skills of migrants already employed in the UK than for those of UK-born workers. Manacorda, Manning and Wadsworth (2012) analyse data from 1975-2005 and conclude that the main impact of increased immigration is on the wages of migrants already in the UK.

I think it’s fairly obvious that the bigger impacts on pay in the UK – especially in recent years – are from public sector wage freezes, zero hours contracts and precarity generally, the weakening of workplace rights (including legal aid for tribunals), the declining share of the workforce belonging to unions, the timidity of union officials in tackling low pay and so on. If people are concerned about low pay, there are many more important issues to focus on than migration. But even were we to concede that migration brings down the wages of specific groups – agricultural seasonal workers, say, or baristas – would stricter immigration controls be the answer? Not at all. In fact by increasing the precariousness of the position of immigrants it would discourage them from organising and challenging their pay and conditions, as well as making illegal immigration more likely and adding to the problem of the difficulty of organizing.

What of argument number two? The fundamental problem with this is the notion that we all ‘belong’ somewhere and it’s better all round if we stay there. This denies human beings the right to decide – for whatever reason, personal and family relationships, career, study, plain whim – to move and settle somewhere else on the planet. Underlying it are all kinds of reactionary notions of nationalism and ethnic identity. Of course, it is wrong that people are compelled to move by poverty or war against their wishes, but equally, I’m with Caroline Lucas in saying that we should ‘celebrate’ freedom of movement (but not just within the EU) not see it as a conspiracy by capital without any positive aspects for us. The argument that ‘the brightest and best’ should stay in their own countries and make them more prosperous was brilliantly satirized by Stewart Lee.

The argument about Fortress Europe goes back to the referendum. I am not going to rehearse all the arguments here between so-called Lexiters and left Remainers. I think it’s clear that although there are severe limitations on freedom of movement as defined by the EU, the result of the referendum (at least here and now in the UK) is not to make it more likely that the UK’s borders will be more open in future to people from outside the EU. May has already refused to relax visa requirements for people coming from India. There may be attempts to make things easier for people from the ‘white’ Commonwealth (in another throwback to the 1950s when the talk was of ‘kith and kin’ rather than letting in all these black and brown people). What is clear is that the situation of the more than 3 million EU citizens in the UK (and the UK’s in the EU, not all of whom are UKIP-voting pensioners on the Costas) has been made more insecure by Brexit. It is not in the interests of UK workers, even if they have no plans to move to Europe, or have kids who want to study or live there in future, for a large group of their fellow workers to be having to wonder if they will be kicked out if they lose their jobs. Freedom of movement only within the EU is of course not the situation we would like to have, but it is worth defending against the racists and xenophobes. The notion that if you get rid of it there will be more room to allow in refugees or other migrants from Africa and the Middle East is – in the circumstances of the rampant Tory press and widespread Islamophobia – a bizarre fantasy.

The bottom line is that any concession to restricting immigration necessarily involves the notion that immigrants are a problem, and therefore it contributes to hostility and racism against all immigrants. You cannot be simultaneously positive about the immigrants who are ‘already here’ and hostile to the ones you want to keep out: the Leave vote was followed by abuse and attacks on second and third generation ethnic minority British citizens as well as Poles, Bulgarians, Italians etc. Capital is free to move across borders; our minimum demand should be free movement of people.


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